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Journal of Musicology

The Subject – A Key Element of the Fugue Form

during the 20th Century
“George Enescu” National University of Arts Iaşi

Abstract: The great stylistic epochs of the past mostly had syntaxes and specific
forms, escaping in the context of the application of polyphonic syntax to the tonal
system. The twentieth century, characterized by a continuous mobility and search in
the field of the musical language, does not intend to create new musical forms but
takes preexisting patterns, which adapt to the creative contexts specific to the
composers. Thus, despite the blurring of some of the fundamental elements, other
factors of configuration and construction were maintained and amplified, as well as
the particular phenomenon, the most significant phenomenon being the development
of the thematic principle, which will have its particular manifestations in the fugue
form, the diversity of its interpretations bearing the mark of some new directions.

Keywords: the fugue form, theme, exposition, 20th century, imitation, poliphony.

1. Introduction
A complex thematic form, based on the exposition archetype, the fugue
form has as a main constructive reference the thematic articulation, which in
the course of the work undergoes more or less considerable transformations,
and which, through episodic appearance, determines the organization of the
whole in distinct architectural segments with specific functionality. Due to the
importance of the theme in establishing the coordinates of the form, the present
study deals with several aspects of articulation in the musical context of the
20th century, which are novelties in relation to the knowledge about the theme
of the Baroque fugue.

2. Particularization
Regarding the intonations employed, as well as the melodic and
rhythmic aspects, we have already noted some significant aspects in a previous
chapter. We will continue to provide some additional observations on the
rhythmic and melodic setting of the fugue themes, particularly focusing on the
aforementioned features.
From an intonational point of view, we observe the use of a variety of
formulas that refer either to Baroque themes (Gregorian or Protestant choral or
instrumental style), or units that process elements adopted from folklore (song

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or dance) or are manifestations of the serial, atonal, tonal-geometric thought of

the composers:
· The Gregorian choral style: Erik Satie, Fugue litanique; Dmitri
Shostakovich, Fugue IV of 24 Preludes and fugues
· The Instrumental style: George Enescu, Suite op. 20 (first theme);
Sigismund Toduţă, Concert no. 2 for string orchestra

Fig. 1a George Enescu, Suite no. 2 op. 20 for orchestra, part I, theme 1, mm. 1-3

Fig. 1b Sigismund Toduţă, Concerto no. 2 for string orchestra, theme, mm. 1-5

· The Bachian sonority: Dmitri Shostakovich, Quintet op. 57; Max

Reger, Variations and fugue on a theme by J.S. Bach;
· The Christmas carol: Sigismund Toduţă, Nainte-mi de curţi, Colo-n
josu mai din josu (Before the gate, Down below); George Enescu,
Fugue from Suite for piano op. 3;
· The dance: Tudor Ciortea, Octet for wind instruments and piano;
Sigismund Toduţă, “Mioriţa” Oratorio;

Fig. 2 Sigismund Toduţă, “Mioriţa” Oratorio, Fugue, mm. 1-2


· Serial theme: Doru Popovici, Symphony II (Spielberg) (fugue

theme consisting of 2 complete series);

Fig. 3 Doru Popovici, Symphony II (Spielberg), mm. 1-4

· Atonal theme: Arnold Schönberg, Pierrot lunaire – Der Mondfleck;

Fig. 4 Arnold Schönberg, Pierrot lunaire, Der Mondfleck, mm. 1-4

· The tonal-geometric theme: Béla Bartók, Music for strings,

percussion and celesta, part I;
· The Funnel1 theme: Zeno Vancea, Concert for orchestra;

Fig. 5 Zeno Vancea, Concerto for orchestra, Fuga, mm. 1-7

· Chromatically enriched Byzantine sounds: Gheorghe Firca,

Contrapuntal sketch on a Byzantine theme;

Term introduced by Dan Voiculescu in the work Polyphony of the 20th Century.

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· The theme without melodic intonations, achieved only by/through

acoustic effects: Şerban Nichifor, Anamorphose;

Fig. 6a Şerban Nichifor, Anamorphose, mm. 1-6


Fig. 6b Ernst Toch, Geographical Fugue, mm. 1-3

The melodic structure of the themes is the direct expression of the

composing thought belonging to the authors who approached the fugue
technique, a tendency that can be framed in several main directions:
- late romanticism (Max Reger), which exploits tonal thinking in an
intensely chromatic hypostasis;
- neo-classical, which takes the Baroque tonalism (George Enescu, Suite
op. 3);
- tonal with pentatonic and pre-pentatonic modal influences;
- diatonic modal (Erik Satie);
- tonal system based on the first partials of the natural harmonics series
(Paul Hindemith, Ludus tonalis, Trio);
- chromatic modalism (Sigismund Toduţă, Concerto for orchestra no. 2);
- dodecaphonic system;
- atonal system (György Ligeti, Aurel Stroe);
- serialism (Doru Popovici).

In some cases, we even observe certain correspondences between the

fugue subjects of some composers and the intonational patterns from the
creation of others. In the fugue from Sonata for solo violin by Marcel
Mihalovici, the theme takes on variation one of Szymanowsky's choral works
(via ornamentation on modal-chromatic basis).

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Fig. 7a Karol Szymanowsky, Cine bate, mm. 17-18

Fig. 7b Marcel Mihalovici, Sonata for solo violin, theme, mm. 1-2

From the point of view of the interval structure, the Baroque fugue was
based on scalar formulas, connected by leaps not exceeding a sixth, but framed
in a clearly defined tonal context In the twentieth century, due to the
progressive expansion of the tonal system, on the one hand by the increase of
the chromatic complexity, and on the other by mixing with elements of modal
thinking in various hypostases up to atonal and serial thinking, we see a change
in the melodic design of the themes, manifested by the introduction of
successive leaps, sometimes exceeding an octave.
We observe a differentiation on this line between the tonal or the tone-
modal themes and those of intense chromatic or atonal conception:
gravitational thinking stands out by itself, the melodic formulas are
individualized and are recognizable precisely through the logic of melodic
organization and clear latent harmonic chains; the atonal system (serial,
geometric) can only be imposed upon hearing via shocking formulas, leaps or
successions of unexpected leaps, or specific melodic formulas.


Fig. 8 Aurel Stroe, Sonata for piano, part III, Fuga, mm. 1-22

Due to the “rugged” structure of such thematic constructions, we can no

longer speak, as in the case of Bachian fugues, of the existence of a well-
defined climax, but of an ensemble of musical and extra-musical factors (text
in the case of vocal or vocal-symphonic fugues, emission mode, attack type,
intervalic, rhythmic formulas, etc.), which determines a discursive route with
particular expressive meanings oscillating between pure objectivism
(Hindemith, Ravel) and maximum subjectivity (in Wozzeck, each theme of the
triple fugue bears the mark of the character's symbolic nature, becoming a
From a rhythmical point of view, we observe the same delimitation of the
manifestation tendencies also applicable to intonation, this time focused on two
major sub-classes:
- the neoclassical line, which takes on the rhythmic formations
specific to the Baroque fugue, whether of a vocal nature in stile
antico, or of an instrumental style, characterized by the fluency
of the sixteenth grouping.

Fig. 9 Arthur Honegger, Prelude, Arioso et Fughette sur le nom BACH, Fughette, mm. 1-2

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- with the rhythmic factor emancipation in the 20th century

music, there is a diversification of the rhythmic formulas, the
expression of the thematic articulation being influenced by the
punctuated formulas, by the rhythmic ornamentation by multiple
divisions of the time units, by the association of asymmetric
formulas disproportionate as number of elements and temporal

The diversification of the rhythmic side at the level of the theme will
extend to the variation of its later aspects (in the median halves), not only by
augmentation or diminution, but by the diversification of the rhythmic
formulas that alter the grouping of the original values and metro-rhythmic
accents (ex. Myriam Marbé, Sonata for two violas, part 2, György Ligeti,
Requiem – Kyrie).
We also encounter a metric variation of the themes, highlighted by the
polymetry of some thematic articulations (see Aurel Stroe, Fugue from the
Sonata for piano).
As with the Baroque fugue themes, we encounter aspects of latent
polyphony in the construction of the thematic articulations, yet along a similar
line of application of the process. A special type of latent polyphony, particular
to the creation following the 1950s, is the one obtained on punctualist bases
such as the fugue from the Sonata for solo clarinet by Tiberiu Olah. The
apparent planes belonging to the same monody are delineated based on timbre
and attack, as well as on the valorisation of the dynamic elements.

Fig. 10 Tiberiu Olah, Sonata for solo clarinet, theme, mm. 34-40

The tendencies for maximum rationalization of modal structures placed

their mark on the ways of conceiving fugue themes. Thus, in serial works, we
often encounter quasi-symmetrical thematic constructions, whose internal
organization allows – precisely because of the similarity of the variants - their
simultaneous processing. For example, the theme of the “fugue” from the
Sonata for two violas by Myriam Marbé is subject to multiple permutations,
which also give rise to symmetric modules.


Fig. 11 Myriam Marbé, Sonata for two violas, theme

The whole discourse of the section (Aria) is built up by overlapping and

juxtapositions of different variants of the primary and derived series in multiple
rhythmic scenes. The relationship of the two structures determines, on the one
hand, the sound unity of the whole, and on the other hand, by imprinting the
sensation of mono-thematism, it gives birth to the form, which becomes a
fugue in a very free aspect. The imitation of the two component voices is never
strict, and melodic differences (generated by the many added sounds to the
initial series) but especially the rhythmic ones make it sometimes difficult to
perceive the imitated model.

Fig. 12 Myriam Marbé, Sonata for two violas, part II, Aria, mm. 12-18

3. Thematic treatment in the fugue exposition

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We will continue to address some of the types of response and the fugue
of the 20th century.
· The expositive response is divided into two categories:
1. the octavian response, which continues the traditional closing line of the
imitation circle with the return to the base tone (C-G-C). The process is
especially applied by neo-classical composers whose extended (tono-modal)
tonal language is still dominated by the gravitational dominant functionality
(Bartók, Enescu, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, etc.).
2. the non-octavian response can be divided in two subclasses:
- the superior fifth interval response (or lower fourth) without closing
the imitative string in the octave circle. In this category, there are the fugue
expositions of a considerable number of authors who use intensely chromatic
sonorous language, to the limit of atonalism or in the serial works of the
composers concerned with constructivism as a way of conceiving creation.

Fig. 13a Arnold Schönberg, Pierrot lunaire, Der Mondfleck, mm. 1-5


Fig. 13b György Ligeti, Musica ricercata, no. XI, mm. 1-11

The same category includes some of György Ligeti's works, who openly
expresses his intention to take over, as a tribute, some of the old polyphonic
techniques (Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi).
- the response at a different interval than the fifth. In this category, a
great number of opuses are aligned, complying with the sign of a complex
modalism obtained by chromaticism, or as is the case of Hindemith or other
composers, of a personal sonorous system. Moreover, in most cases, it is no
longer a question of a proper response, but of a succession of entries according
to criteria other than the traditional ones, which are based on the dominant
tonal principle.
In Music for strings, percussion and celesta (1st movement) by Béla
Bartók, the vocals entry is conducted according to a rigorous and originally
structured tonal plan, which follows the circle of fifths both in ascending and
descending directions, the latter two, at an extended fourth interval, thus
resuming the first bipolar axis.
In Sonata for violin and piano, 3rd movement by Paul Hindemith, the
expositive entries take place at a descending second interval, the last entry
preceding the first episode ending the series of exposes in an octave interval,
while replaying the theme in the original version (C-Bb-A-G-C). Between the
extreme exposures on the same sound, we discover an intonational
differentiation, made by enharmonic permutation, in order to avoid the vertical
occurrence of a collision between two different alterations of the same sound
(G# with Gb – m. 19).

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Fig. 14 Paul Hindemith, Violin sonata in C major no. 4, 3rd movement, mm. 1-21

In the same scalar layout, the entries in the exposition of the fugue in part
IV of the Trio by the same composer are ordered in a wave-like manner E – F#
– A – Ab (the B-A-C-H formula). We can see a preference of the composer for
the imitation on the second and on the third, the latter being especially
capitalized in Ludus tonalis2.

An aspect noticed and commented by Dan Voiculescu in the work Polyphony of the 20th
Century, Bucureşti: Editura Muzicală, 2005.


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Fig. 15 Paul Hindemith, Trio op. 34, part IV, mm. 1-35

In Stravinsky’s case (Octet, 3rd movement) we encounter what we might

call self-imitation – the presentation of the theme and of the response at the
same voice. The theme is exposed consecutively on the same tune by the 1st
bassoon, the aspect of fugue exposition being suggested by the entry of an
additional instrumental counter-subject, in the upper plan of the second

Other examples of changes in the relationship between thematic

exposures in the exposition:
· At Tiberiu Olah (fugue from the Clarinet sonata) we encounter the
succession of entries at a small ascending second interval – F-F#-G.
· The explicit deviation from the gravitational conception of classical
tonalism is expressed by the three expositional entries of the theme
from the Spielberg Symphony by Doru Popovici. The intonation


cycle does not conclude in an octave interval, but in the distorted

spirit of the diminished octave (8-), expressed by the relation E-Eb.
· An original succession, based on the perfect fifth / diminished fifth
combination, can be found in the three voice exposition from the
Sonata for solo violin by Marcel Mihalovici – Eb / A / Bb. The three
sounds are not only found in the eight-element chromatic series
(with 2 repetitive sounds) which forms the basis of the theme, but
also represent its pillars: incipient, middle and final.

Fig. 16 Marcel Mihalovici, Sonata for solo violin, 2nd movement, Fugue, mm. 1-5

· In Ede Terényi´s piece for organ, the thematic entries follow the
order of pitches in the B A C H series – Bb - A - C – both in the
exposition and in the stretto following it.
· How could we explain, based on a sonorous reasoning pertaining to
functionality or non-functionality, the thematic exposures in
Anamorphose by Şerban Nichifor or in Ernst Toch’s Geographical
Fugue? In such cases, from the entire rigorous imitative technique,
only the principle of the successive entries of a “sonorous event” for
all the voices involved in the polyphonic discourse is preserved.

An element of novelty in the 20th century fugue is the abandonment in

some cases of the enunciation of the subject by a single voice, specific to the
model of the Baroque period. In this situation, we also encounter various ways
of accompanying the theme:
· By introducing a free counterpoint, which can embrace more
hypostases depending on the degree of repeatability and visibility
during later statements of the subject;
· A free counterpoint that does not bear further treatment. For
example, in Contrapuntal sketch by Gheorghe Firca;
· A counterpoint that becomes the ostinato pedal throughout the
entire exposition. In Trio by Paul Hindemith (Fugue 1), the ostinato
unfolds unchanged together with the first two entrances, being

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modified by successive transpositions to a different discursive plane

(from G# to F#, C#, G, A, D and finally to Ab). The ostinato
counter-subject is based on the first motive of the theme;

Fig. 17 Paul Hindemith, Trio, 4th movement, Fugue, mm. 1-10

· A particular type of exposition is the one found in the fugato from

the String Quartet op. 7 by Bartók. The four statements placed at a
descending fourth (F-C) are grouped into pairs that feature two
interesting peculiarities: the incipit in stretto and the partial
similarity of the subject with the response (at a rhythmic level they
are different), the latter taking the appearance of a counter-subject.


Fig. 18 Béla Bartók, String Quartet op. 7 no.1, 1st movement, mm. 1-13

· A particular case of great interest is the exposition of the second

theme of the Organ composition fugue by Ede Terényi;

Fig. 19 Ede Terényi, Organ composition, mm. 25-29

After its initial statement, the theme is gradually imitated at all voices, its
counterpoint being accomplished by repeating the same thematic lines in
various rhythmic variants. Thus, the theme becomes a counterpoint to itself.

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In the same context of counter-subjects, one can notice the preference of

fugue composers of the 20th century for the strict counterpoint, sometimes with
even two and up to three counter-subjects. The power of these accompanying
lines of the theme determines their individualization, sometimes transforming
them into stand-alone themes. In Quintet op. 57 by Dmitri Shostakovich, one
of the two counter-subjects from the exposition will have a considerable
constructive significance in the subsequent sections: it is resumed in the second
episode as an actual theme, and in the final part, the first counter-subject is
played in between the two statements of the subject, without being present in
this section with the original function.
In the cycle 24 Preludes and fugues, Shostakovich also employs a wide
variety of counter-subjects, the appearance of which during the fugue leading
to the emergence of multiple counterpoint ratios.

4. Conclusions
As a musical idea with developmental virtues, referring to a certain
structure of form, the theme3 far exceeds the significance of a simple musical
idea precisely through its formal core function in the context of the respective
architecture, becoming what Valentin Timaru (1990, pp. 196-198) designates as
a formal landmark for musical forms with a refrain and for variational forms,
and a form of reason for complex thematic forms.
The fluctuating and free use of means of sound expression in the
twentieth century music determined the change of the concept of fleeing
manifested through a new authenticity. The layout of the fugue form, directly
influenced by the innovations of the thematic concept, has embraced creative
values that impose limits on the composer’s fantasy and enrich it precisely
through these constraints. The variety of means of conceiving the form of
escape, manifested in the musical and structural parameters, becomes the
starting point for the most unexpected hypostases of the form, often surprising
in their modernity.


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analysis course]. Oradea: Editura Universităţii din Oradea.

“We call the theme a musical idea of reference for the evolution of a musical discourse, in
which the sound organization imparts some interdependence relations crystallized in a certain
principle of superior organized musical form.” (Timaru, 2002, pp. 82-83)


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